Florida's two popular land-buying programs, Preservation 2000, which began in 1990 under Gov. Bob Martinez, and its successor, Florida Forever, which began under Gov. Jeb Bush, have allowed the state to purchase more than 2.5 million acres of environmentally sensitive land. The purchases are paid for with bonds that are backed using revenue from documentary stamp taxes on real estate transactions. When the tax was first created in 1968, it was supposed to pay for land acquisitions. But over the decades, it increasingly has been diverted to fund other state programs. Last fiscal year, the state spent 27% of the available $1.5 billion in doc stamp revenue on debt service for past land purchases, setting aside just 5% in a land acquisition trust fund for new purchases. The rest of the money went toward a variety of other trust funds. While the state is not required to dedicate a certain amount of the revenue from these taxes to Florida Forever, it is authorized by law to spend up to $300 million. But since the real estate slump in 2008, the Legislature has failed to fund Florida Forever at this $300 million level, spending less than 5% of its historical annual funding, even though real estate tax revenue has since risen. Last year, for example, when the state had a budget surplus, Florida Forever got only $20 million.
Ironically, the funding cut has come at a time when interest rates and land prices have been at historic lows. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott's administration began a move to evaluate and sell "un-needed" state properties. That would have been a reasonable step if part of a balanced approach to land preservation, but on top of funding cuts for acquiring land that is sensitive, it came across as an environmental insult added to injury.
In addition to preserving an essential part of Florida's heritage, along with protecting the homes of endangered species, the acquisition of environmentally sensitive land is vital to protecting the health of the state's aquifer recharge areas and water supply.
The state needs a balanced approach to land acquisition and preservation along with a steady funding source for land acquisition that's not subject to budgetary maneuvering. A group called Florida's Water and Land Legacy may offer an ideal solution. The group is gathering signatures for a petition to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014 that requires a third of the doc stamp tax revenue be set aside for land conservation over 20 years. Will Abberger, director of Conservation Finance for the Trust for Public Land, says the move will generate about $10 billion in land-buying power. Whether or not this constitutional amendment passes, the state's leaders need to fund Florida Forever at a steady level consistent with its vital role in protecting Florida's wetlands, forests and beaches.